Activation of skeletal muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

Christopher J. Lingle, David Maconochie, Joe Henry Steinbach

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Work over the past ten years has greatly increased our understanding of both the structure and function of the muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. There is a strongly supported general picture of how the receptor functions: agonist binds rapidly to sites of low affinity and channel opening occurs at a rate comparable to the agonist dissociation rate. Channel closing is slow, so the channel has a high probability of being open if both agonist-binding sites are occupied by ACh. Results of expression studies have shown that each subunit can influence AChR activation and have given a structural basis for the major physiological change known for muscle AChR, the developmental change in AChR activation. These general statements notwithstanding, there are still major areas of uncertainty which limit our understanding. We have emphasized these areas of uncertainty in this review, to indicate what needs to be done. First, the quantitative estimates of rate constants are not as strongly supported as they should be. The major reasons are twofold-uncertainties about the interpretation of components in the kinetic data and difficulties of resolving brief events. As a result, any inferences about the functional consequences of structural alterations must remain tenuous. Second, the functional behavior of individual AChRs is not as well understood as it should be. The kinetic behavior of an individual receptor clearly can be complex (section II). In addition, there is evidence that superimposed on this complexity there may be stable and kinetically distinguishable populations of receptors (section III). Until the basis for the kinetically defined populations is clarified, kinetic parameters for receptors of defined structure cannot be unambiguously obtained. Finally, it is not surprising that the studies of AChR of altered structure have not given definitive results. Two reasons should be apparent from the preceding points: there is not a fully supported approach for kinetic analysis, and the "normal" population may not be clearly defined. An additional complication is also emerging, in that the available data support the idea that specific residues distributed over all subunits may influence AChR activation. This possibility renders the task of analysis that much more difficult. The muscle nicotinic AChR has served as a prototype for the family of transmitter-gated membrane channels, which includes the muscle and neuronal nicotinic receptors, the GABAA, the glycine and possibly the non-NMDA excitatory amino acid receptor (Stroud et al., 1990). It is interesting to note that the functional properties of the GABAA receptor, probably the best-studied of the other members of the family are rather similar. In particular, opentime and burst durations show multiple components interpreted as reflecting openings of singly and doubly liganded receptors (Mathers & Wang, 1988; Macdonald et al., 1989), the distribution of gaps indicates a relatively complex gating scheme (Twyman et al., 1990; Weiss & Magleby, 1989), and multiple kinetic modes are likely to exist (Newland et al., 1991). The situation with regards to the effects of GABAA receptor subunit stoichiometry is more complex than for muscle AChR (e.g., Luddens & Wisden, 1991), perhaps similar to that found for neuronal nicotinic AChR (Papke et al., 1989; Luetje et al., 1990; Luetje & Patrick, 1991). Overall, it appears that the unresolved questions about the muscle nicotinic AChR are not indications that this is an exceptionally complicated transmitter-gated channel. Rather, it appears to be a relatively straightforward member of the family, and the lessons we learn from studying it are likely to be directly applicable to other receptors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-217
Number of pages23
JournalThe Journal of Membrane Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1992


  • acetylcholine receptor
  • channel gating
  • function relationship
  • neuromuscular junction
  • nicotinic receptor
  • structure
  • synaptic transmission


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